Brexit: a portrait of political paralysis

There was an exit door, but one which May, the Remainer, was never willing to take


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

No Way Out is the third book in Tim Shipman’s Westminster-focused account of Brexit and its consequences. All Out War covered the referendum itself. Fall Out dealt with the rise of Theresa May. Out, the fourth and final volume, due in July, will turn to the rise and fall of Boris Johnson — and that of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Which leaves only the fall of Theresa May, the subject of this third volume and the most shaming book I have ever read.

This may not seem immediately apparent from its detail. The tale Shipman tells is not, as the cliché has it, the first draft of history. As he points out in his acknowledgements, Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell got there earlier, as have others — but not so painstakingly. 

No Way Out: Brexit: From the Backstop to Boris, Tim Shipman (William Collins, £26)

Shipman’s books are a kind of pointillism, in which dots of incident are clustered together to form a whole — as though Georges Seurat had been let loose, paint and brushes to hand, in Number 10 or Central Lobby.

So we learn that amongst the ideas floated for David Davis’ proposed highly streamlined customs arrangement was “facial recognition for pigs”. Dominic Raab “is staggered to find that there were no formal minutes of [chief Brexit negotiator Olly]Robbins’ talks with Barnier’s Article 50 Task Force”. Jeremy Corbyn interrupts a shadow cabinet briefing to ask: “What is this backstop?” 

A security guard refuses to let Penny Mordaunt leave a cabinet meeting. Conservative and Labour collaborators set up a WhatsApp group called “Mating Porcupines”. Steve Barclay votes against a motion which he himself has proposed. Michael Gove says “I think we are filt”. This turns out to be an acronym, originally deployed by Nicholas Soames, for “Fouquet in Le Touquet”.

Were Shipman looking for another title, here it is, as the dots pile up on the canvas: meaningful votes, the Cooper-Boles amendment, the Benn Act, the Malthouse compromise, Change UK — or rather the Independent Group for Change — and the meaning of “forthwith”, which John Bercow rules to be other than it is. Those who paid no attention, or couldn’t care less, may view the May years with indifference, boredom or contempt. Those who did, or do care, will feel the claustrophobia: that there seems, truly, to be No Way Out.

They will also feel the shame. If one is a democrat, one must believe that Britain has the right to leave the European Union (whether one thinks it is right to do so or not). And if one is a patriot, one must also believe, surely, that the capacity exists for Britain to do so competently. But Theresa May’s government evidently couldn’t. Why?

Shipman’s accounts to date, and the wider story, offer a number of reasons. The British people voted to leave. Parliament wanted to stay. The referendum didn’t put a post-Leave plan to the people. And David Cameron’s government refused to prepare for one. Vote Leave wasn’t a government, and so couldn’t oversee the Brexit it campaigned for. May was in charge — and there was no consensus on what type of Brexit her government should pursue. 

EU member states were, by and large, not inclined to help May’s government

Above all, some Brexiteers and our European neighbours talked past each other. The former, in their Anglo-Saxon way, believed that trade would trump politics — that German car manufacturers would insist on free trade because Europe’s self-interest demands it. But our neighbours, with borders less secure over time than ours and a history of recent war fought on their own soil, put politics first, in the form of ever-closer union.

So the most fascinating nugget of Shipman’s account should perhaps be the least surprising: that EU member states were, by and large, not inclined to help May’s government (France especially), but that the European Commission was more flexible — especially when Martin Selmayr, its secretary-general at the time, came to see her as a useful foil against Donald Trump. 

At one point in the negotiations, David Lidington, then deputy prime minister in effect, believed that Selmayr was offering Britain a role in the EU’s inner counsels, especially over defence, relations with the rest of the world and security — or so Shipman says. As Russia pushes again in Ukraine today, and isolationism gathers momentum once again in America, this element of his book may spin off into the future.

So was there truly No Way Out? Dominic Cummings wanted to blast a hole in the wall. His argument seems to have been that Article 50 was a trap, that Britain’s terms of leaving and a free trade deal should have been negotiated together — and the problem of the Northern Ireland border thereby dissolved. But this would have demanded more bloody-mindedness and willingness to risk No Deal, if necessary, than voters may have been willing to accept.

Yet Shipman concludes that, when push came to shove, there was an exit door — but one that May, the Remainer, was never willing to take:

“In a perverse way, her premiership, in trying many options — hard Brexit, soft Brexit, cross-party working and even, in the end, flirting with another referendum — left each tributary dry. What remained untried … was the only course of action left … [She] not only made possible the premiership of Boris Johnson — a Brexiteer optimist and gambler, a big-picture improviser and an arresting speaker — she made it inevitable.”

The detail is compelling; the judgement magisterial. No Way Out is a formidable book, painstaking in every way other than providing an index. This third part of Shipman’s quartet was originally planned to be a single volume into which Out would have been compressed. But the author found himself with so much material as to make a fourth book necessary.

It will go on to chronicle how Johnson and Cummings together made Brexit happen after the European Research Group, Dominic Grieve and company, Labour (in the end) and Parliament itself had collectively sunk May’s deal. Her deal might, from a certain unionist perspective, have been better for the United Kingdom; it would certainly, for most Brexiteers, have been worse for Great Britain — since it wouldn’t have taken back control of money, borders and laws.

At any rate, Johnson and Cummings then fell out spectacularly — and so on we go to Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak and today. 

Irony is king: for, as I write, Brexit Britain is set to slide further towards social democracy at the very moment that Europe itself, that safe home of “grown-up countries”, is moving erratically but persistently towards the populist right and perhaps further out still. Could it ever have been otherwise? Perhaps we will find out, if Shipman ever girds himself to write volume five.

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